The Power of Focus

“Pay attention!” “Eyes on the board!” “Where’s your head?”

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I heard all of these (and many more!) when I was growing up. I had (OK, have) a very short attention span. Focusing on anything for any length of time has always been a challenge to me. If I’m going to study for a sermon, I’ve got several tricks I use to make sure my attention stays where it needs to. Some days, I’m more successful than I am on other days.

Not paying attention is a growing and dangerous problem in our culture. People drive and text. Others try to carry on conversations while they check social media. Meeting attendees check email and work on other projects while they’re supposed to be paying attention to the meeting they’re in.

One of the places this lack of attention is so destructive is our marriages. Trying to listen to your wife and watch TV doesn’t work. Listening to your husband while you scroll through Facebook actually shuts down communication. It doesn’t enhance it.

We have enough studies to know one thing for sure: we don’t multi-task well. In fact, most of us can only do one thing at a time.

And that is especially true in our marriages. We can only do one thing at a time. We can only focus on one thing at a time.

So, when it’s time to focus on your marriage, put down everything else and focus on your marriage. Turn off the TV, unplug your gadgets, and focus on each other. Look into her eyes and turn your body to squarely face each other. Listen—with your whole self—listen! Listen not only to the words, but to how the words are said. Listen not only to what words are used, but how the way they’re used changes or shapes their meanings.

You notice things when you pay attention. You pick up on small details you had overlooked before. You learn things and discover things that have been there all of the time.

Focus will do the same thing to your marriage. So, pay attention. Focus. Who knows? You may find another reason you fell in love in the first place.

Do you pay attention to your spouse?

If you’re going to buy a car, you would do a little research. You would talk to friends, read car blogs and magazines, and search the web for insights and facts about the car you wanted to drive. Coaches watch game films, not only to better understand their opponents, but to study their own strengths and weaknesses. If you were going to buy a business, you would do “due diligence.” That is, you would do the necessary research to fully understand the business and its market. No general would think of initiating an attack without doing the necessary reconnaissance.

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Yet, when it comes to our marriages, we naively believe “we’ll just know” what we’re supposed to do. Let me ask you a question. Does that work in any area of your life? Then, what makes you think it will work in your marriage?

Like any good leader, we have to do the necessary research and study our spouses. I call it “Spousal Recon.”

Here’s what I mean. We should pay such close attention to our spouses that we begin to know them better than they know themselves. We know their dreams and disappointments. We should know their loves and frustrations. We should be able to tell their stories better than they can.

And yes, husbands you should know her dress size and what colors she looks best in. You should know her favorite flower and her favorite restaurant. (If you don’t know, ASK!)

Yes, wives, you should know his favorite football team and his favorite rock band. You should know what movies make him cry…and why. You should know what shirts he looks good in and understand his relationship with his dad. You should know his dreams and failures, his fears and hopes…that’s right…better and deeper than he does.

Our marriage relationship is one of the biggest investments we ever make in our lives. It’s worth a little work—a little research—a little spousal recon—in order to have everything in your marriage you looking for.

The Challenge of Change

One of the most damaging, yet common mistakes of getting married is thinking the other person will change after you get married. Most people don’t. What was once a cute little annoyance becomes a nerve-ripping fire starter when you have to live with it every day, day after day.

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It’s one of the questions I ask couples during pre-marital counseling. “What is it that you hate about the other person?” Normally, people know instantly what it is about their fiancé that drives them up the wall. Then, I’ll ask another question: “Can you live with it?” Why do I ask that? Because most people don’t change, and if they do change, they don’t change much. Most of the time, what you see is what you get.

Having said that, there are those things that your spouse could do better. There are little changes, that if made, could make life a lot easier.

But here are two things we know about change. First, no one can change another person. We simply don’t have that power. Second, no one changes unless they really want to.

Ah, there’s the rub. How can we get our spouses to WANT to change?

First, we communicate what we need by taking ownership of what we’re asking.

For instance, we say, “It would help me if you did…” That works a lot better than, “You need to stop doing that!” There’s no nagging. No anger. Just a polite request for help.

Second, (and this is the fun part) we reward approximate behavior.

(I’ve stolen this insight from my professor and friend, Wade Rowatt.) Here’s what I mean. Any time your spouse gets CLOSE to the requested behavior, you celebrate. For instance, if your spouse is a slob and during the day they pick up one article of clothing, THAT’s what you celebrate! Yes, the rest of house is still a mess, but you don’t mention that. You simply tell your spouse that life is better because of that action.

Now, you’re thinking, “Mike, that won’t work. It’s silly and obvious.” Sure it is, but that’s half the point. When your husband picks up a pair of socks and you kiss him for his help, he’ll know what you’re doing, but it’ll feel so good he won’t care.

Yes, it’s a slow way to change, but it beats arguing and yelling at each other and nothing changing at all in the end.

So, give it try.

Ask for what you need, and then look for the smallest reason to celebrate.

Give it try. I’d love to hear your stories.

Keys to Success in Marriage

After 36 years, you’d think I’d run out of things to say. Jeannie and I have been together for 37 years (we met on Derby Day the year before we got married), and today we celebrate our 36th wedding anniversary. On the one hand, I feel like we’ve been together forever, and on the other hand, it feels like we just got married yesterday. Friends want to know how we’ve stayed together so long.

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Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it. I just got up and did what I had to that day, and then I got up the next day and the day after that. Before I knew it, 36 years had shot by.

But now that I think about it, there are a few things I think were important to our success. (Marital success has a very low bar in our culture. All you have to do is stay together. No one really worries if your being together means anything…but that’s another blog for another day.)

First, Jeannie and I were committed to stay in the marriage. It’s not much, but honestly, I think we made through some of our toughest times simply because neither one of us would leave. There were times when we figured things out because we had to. If we’re going to be together, we better find a way to make it work.

Second, there was never a time I doubted Jeannie’s love for me. Even in times when she did things I didn’t like, I knew she loved me. Sometimes, I would keep wading through the disappointments knowing that somewhere in all of it, I would find Jeannie’s love for me.

Third, we had the good fortune of knowing a lot of great couples who were older than us. From our friendships with them, we gained years of wisdom and understanding. I can’t begin to count up all of the fights Jeannie and I never had because our friends had taught us a better way to live out our love for each other in marriage. For some of you, befriending an older married couple would be one of the best gifts you could give your marriage.

I know this isn’t a profound list. You’re not going to read it and say, “Wow! I never thought of that!” But maybe that’s the secret. Maybe it’s not about fireworks and over the top emotions. Maybe it’s about the little things…and little things over 36 years can make quite a difference.

Happy Anniversary, Jeannie! I love you more than I can say!